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In Romance, Opposites Attract

Grab your popcorn, Coke, and Raisinets, because the curtain is about to rise at your local movie house:

Scene 1: The camera pans to a small, dingy, and messy bedroom. There, lying on the bed reading a biography of Ronald Reagan, we see a moderately overweight, balding, and rather unkempt man named Joe Cantgetadate. Joe is 37 years old, shy, nerdy, and completely lacking in self-confidence. Until recently he worked as a librarian but he's now out of a job. Joe hasn't dated anyone in more than 3 years and he's feeling hopeless and lonely.

Scene 2: On his way out of his apartment an hour later, Joe bumps into (literally) a stunningly gorgeous 25-year-old woman named Candice Blondebombshell. In the process, Joe knocks all of the shopping bags out of Candice's hands, scattering them across the sidewalk, and he bends down to help her pick them up. Candice, it so happens, is not only beautiful, but outgoing, interpersonally skilled, and wildly popular. She works part-time as a waitress in an upscale restaurant and spends much of the rest of her time modeling for a top fashion agency. In contrast to Joe, who's a conservative Republican, Candice is a flaming liberal. Sheepishly, Joe asks Candice out for a date, but ends up making an embarrassing Freudian slip, asking her if she wants a "mate" rather than a "date." Candice laughs and tells Joe politely that she's romantically involved with a famous celebrity (Brad Crowe-Cruise) and can't see anyone else.

Scene 50: Forty-eight scenes, two and a half hours, and three buckets of popcorn later, Joe has somehow managed to win over Candice, who's just broken off her relationship with Brad Crowe-Cruise. Candice, initially put off by Joe's lack of stunning good looks and awkward ways, now finds him adorable in a teddy-bear sort of way and utterly irresistible. Joe gets down on his knees, proposes to Candice, and she accepts. The credits scroll down the screen, the curtain closes, and you wipe the tears off your eyes with a Kleenex.

If this plot line seems awfully familiar, it's because the notion that "opposites attract" is Hollywood stock-in-trade and a standard part of our contemporary cultural landscape. Films, novels, and TV sitcoms overflow with stories of diametrical opposites falling passionately in love. There's even an entire website devoted to "opposites attract" movies, which include You've Got Mail (1998), starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and Maid in Manhattan (2001), starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. For you diehard movie buffs out there, the site anoints the 1934 comedy It Happened One Night as the top "opposites attract" movie of all time. (http://marriage.about.com/od/movies/a/oppositesmov.htm)

Many of us are convinced that people who are opposite from each other in personality, beliefs, and looks are especially likely to be attracted to each other (the technical term for the attraction of opposites is "complementarity"). Indeed, psychologist Lynn McCutcheon (1991) found that 77% of undergraduates agreed that opposites attract in relationships. On the Internet site "Soulmatch," couples counselor Harville Hendrix states that "It's been my experience that only opposites attract because that's the nature of reality" (the italics are Hendrix's, not ours, by the way). "The great myth in our culture," he later says, "is that compatibility is the grounds for a relationship—actually, compatibility is grounds for boredom."

Yet for most proverbs, there's an equal and opposite proverb. So although you've almost certainly heard that "opposites attract," you've probably also heard that "birds of a feather flock together." Which folk wisdom is best supported by research evidence? Unfortunately for Dr. Hendrix, the science suggests that he's gotten his myths backward. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, opposites don't attract. Instead, homophily (the fancy term for the tendency of similar people to attract each other) rather than complementarity is the rule. Dozens of studies demonstrate that people with similar personality traits are more likely to be attracted to each other than people with dissimilar personality traits. For example, people with a Type A personality style (that is, who are hard-driving, competitive, conscious of time, and hostile) prefer dating partners who also have a Type A personality; Type Bs are similarly attracted to one another. The same is true of friendships, by the way. We're considerably more likely to hang out with people with similar than dissimilar personality traits.

Similarity in personality traits isn't merely a good predictor of initial attraction. It's also a good predictor of marital stability and happiness. Apparently, similarity on the personality trait of conscientiousness is especially important for marital satisfaction. So if you're a hopelessly messy and disorganized person, it's probably best to find someone who isn't a complete neat freak. The "like attracts like" conclusion extends beyond personality to our attitudes and values. The classic work of Donn Byrne and his colleagues demonstrates that the more similar someone's attitudes (for example, political views) are to ours, the more we tend to like that person. Interestingly, statistical analysis shows proportionally more similarity in attitudes leads to proportionally more liking. So we're about twice as likely to be attracted to someone with whom we agree on 6 of 10 issues as someone with whom we agree on 3 of 10 issues. What's more, people with dissimilar attitudes may be especially unlikely to be attracted to each other. So in the case of attitudes, at least, it's not merely the case that opposites don't attract: They often repel.

In one intriguing study, biologists Peter Buston and Stephen Emlen asked nearly 1,000 participants to rank the importance of 10 characteristics they look for in a long-term mate, such as wealth, ambition, fidelity, parenting style, and physical attractiveness. They then asked these participants to rank themselves on the same 10 characteristics. The two sets of rankings were significantly associated, and were even more highly associated for women than for men, although the reason for this sex difference isn't clear. We shouldn't take the Buston and Emlen findings too far, since they're based entirely on self-report. Still, the results dovetail nicely with that of a great deal of other research demonstrating that when we seek out a soulmate, we seek out someone who matches our personalities and values.

How did the "opposites attract" myth get started? Nobody knows for sure, but we'll serve up three possibilities for your consideration. First, one has to admit that the myth makes for a darned good Hollywood story. Tales of Joe and Candice ending up together are almost always more intriguing than tales of two similar people ending up together. Second, we all yearn for someone who can make us "whole," who can compensate for our weaknesses. Bob Dylan wrote in The Wedding Song of the desire to find that "missing piece" that completes us, much like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Yet when push comes to shove, we may still be drawn to people who are most similar to us. Third and finally, it's possible that there's a tiny bit of truth to the "opposites attract" myth, because a few interesting differences between partners can spice up a relationship. Being with someone who sees everything exactly the same way and agrees with us on every issue can be comforting, but boring. Still, no researchers have systematically tested this "similar people with a few differences here and there attract" hypothesis. Until they do, it's probably safest for the real-life version of Joe to find himself another shy, unkempt nerd.

Previous Myth: The Defining Feature of Dyslexia Is Reversing Letters

From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. Copyright © 2010 by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.  This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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